I can’t fully explain my love-bordering-on-obsession with Spain, but I think I can attribute about 90% of it to food. As much as I love southern American food, if there’s anything better than fried chicken, ribs, or mac and cheese counting as a vegetable, it’s the socially acceptable practice of eating a million different food items over a few hours and accompanying them with wine. And if there’s anything that drives me absolutely bonkers, it’s American restaurants misleading the general public into believing that serving a fraction of the food you’d normally eat for twice as much dinero is tapas! It. Is. Not. Tapas. To prove my point, here are 5 of my favorite real tapas (and some recipes so you don’t have to eat at that overpriced “tapas” restaurant anymore).
Croquetas –If you are from the Southeastern US and have ever had to explain what a hushpuppy is to someone, you will understand my difficulty in explaining croquetas. They are essentially soft mushy carbs fried in olive oil—and sometimes the soft mushy carbs have other delightful additions like famous Spanish ham, chorizo, cod, or cheese. Specifically, croquetas are made from béchamel (flour that is cooked with milk) that is then fried in delicious, savory Spanish olive oil that gives it its outer crunch. My favorite places for these hearty bites in Madrid are Melo’s in Lavapiés and Casa Labra, an institution of the Madrid croquetas scene.
It only took me about one practice run to really get these right at home, and that’s because I didn’t set aside enough time for the béchamel to sit in the refrigerator and thicken before frying it. I swear by the Spanish Sabores recipe for these and substitute other ingredients for the Serrano ham when I’m feeling daring.
Pimientos de Padrón – I wasn’t much of a pepper person before I moved to Madrid, but I can’t resist these little green bite-size delights. The skins get blistered and slightly crunchy and the flavors of olive oil and sea salt are a perfect match for the mild peppers. They say that one pepper in every batch is a hot one, so prepare yourself in case you’re the lucky winner. Just like their croquetas, Melo’s pimientos are as amazing as they are cheap.
I’ve never used a recipe for these, but they’ve always turned out right for me if I just heat up a generous amount of olive oil in a skillet, add the peppers once it gets hot, and stir them around while they blister for about a minute. If you don’t like your food truly soaked in olive oil, let them rest on a dish with some paper towels for a minute or two. Sprinkle sea salt on top!
Tortilla española – My second year living in Madrid, I made it a personal quest of mine to find not just good, but the best tortilla in Madrid. This was an okay thing to attempt, because tortilla española is made with eggs and potato and olive oil. Eggs have protein, potatoes are a vegetable, and olive oil is the “healthy kind of fat.” After a grueling year of tasting tortilla after tortilla, I arrived at my decision: Juana La Loca, in the La Latina neighborhood of Madrid, has the best tortilla I’ve ever tasted. Tender caramelized onions melt into the creamy, but not runny, egg and potato mixture. I trekked here on crutches and with a cast on to have this magical food. The tortilla at Txirimiri in La Latina is a close second!
If you’ve always wanted to perform stunning physical feats while you cook your food, now is your chance! Once you’ve got your eggs, potatoes, and onions cooking in a huge pan of olive oil, you have to “dar la vuelta a la tortilla,” a phrase that roughly translates to “flipping over a piping hot pan of molten egg and potato onto a plate while wondering why you ever decided to try to impress your parents with something you learned while studying abroad.” Here is real found footage of this experience:
I’m still perfecting my recipe for the perfect Juana La Loca-style tortilla, but until then, The New York Times has provided an apt substitute you can find here.
Haaaaaaaam! – Jamón is something of a national obsession in Spain; I recently visited Madrid during its patron saint festival and noticed a ham leg auction happening on the fairgrounds! I grew up going to fairs where the classiest thing you could put money on was a fried *Midnight* Milky Way bar (dark chocolate is heart healthy y’all), so this was a fun, but disorienting experience. To drive the point home, when I moved into my apartment in Madrid a few years ago, I found the kitchen devoid of most of the things I needed (i.e. measuring cups, bowls, a paring knife) but luckily found the one thing I didn’t even know I needed—a ham leg holder!!!!
In all seriousness, Spanish ham is one of the top ten best things to ever happen to me. I miss going to my neighborhood bars and watching the bartenders peel off slices of creamy, savory ham from the leg and deliver it straight to my plate of tapas, and I miss it being socially acceptable to just eat ham and bread for dinner. I’m not sure you can find whole pig legs everywhere in the States, but you can certainly find Spanish ham already sliced and packaged at a “nice” grocery store. Just throw it on a plate with some bread, cheese, or olives (or all three?!) and you’re done!
Pinchos – Pinchos (or pintxos some places) are the most ingenious creation of all tapas: take a slice of bread, put whatever you want on it; stick a toothpick through the middle. Pour yourself a glass of wine. You deserve it because you just made a pincho!
I’ve heard pincho and tapas used interchangeably a million times, and I’ve seen things called pinchos that weren’t on bread, so there’s some room to play here. My favorite combinations usually involve goat cheese, but I’m always up for a pincho with sardines or anchovies on it too. My trip to Bilbao involved its fair share of these snacks—even some high class award-winning beauties! Gure Toki had an amazing selection in the old quarter of Bilbao, including plenty to choose from for my vegetarian friend.
If I’m being honest, what makes me even crazier than the American restaurant version of tapas is how little it incorporates of the social aspect of tapas. You can make a flawless tortilla española in your own house, but if you eat it in one sitting while watching Netflix alone on the couch, that’s not tapas, though it does sound amazing and I definitely want to do that sometime. Sitting in a posh restaurant forking over the big bucks while you and your dinner companions click away on your phones? Also not tapas. Whether you’re enjoying these snacks over a few beers with your friends or getting buddies together at your house to enjoy them, make sure you’re taking time to spend time with people you care about! These tapas are all great by themselves, but they’ve stuck with me because I’ve enjoyed them all with friends or family. Happy tapas-ing!
Melo’s – Calle Ave María 44, Madrid 28012, +34.915.275.054
Casa Labra – Calle Tetuán 12, Madrid 28013, +34.915.310.081, http://www.casalabra.es/en.
Juana La Loca – Plaza Puerta de Moros 4, Madrid 28005, +34.913.640.525, http://juanalalocamadrid.com.
Txirimiri – Calle Humilladero 6, Madrid 28005, +34.913.641.196, http://www.txirimiri.es.
Gure Toki – Plaza Nueva 12, Bilbao 48005, +34.944.158.037, http://www.guretoki.com.